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The Minister for Transport in London (Mr. Steve Norris) : It is a great pleasure for me to have the honour of responding to my right hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Mr. Baker). It was a tremendous honour to have served as his Parliamentary Private Secretary. I fear that he gives me far more credit than I deserve. My right hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley, the Whip on duty, the hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell) and I share one distinction : all three of us have seconded the Loyal Address. What unites my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling and myself is that neither of us has achieved the august stature required to be allowed to propose the Loyal Address, which my right hon. Friend has.

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Commendably, my right hon. Friend has avoided Adjournment debates for 20 years, but I remind him that the idea is that we share the time. I fear that I have about seven or eight minutes in which to respond to him and to my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Sir G. Gardiner). I hope that he will forgive me if, to some extent, I merely acknowledge the various points that have been made. I understand why my right hon. Friend should have raised this subject and I accept the observation of my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate that feelings on the subject in Sussex run high. The simple truth that we all suffer from an extraordinary form of schizophrenia when we contemplate airport development underlies the issue. I register my own interest in that my constituency is not a million miles from Stansted airport, one of the three main airports serving London. We all want to see the economy expand and jobs to be created. I recall offhand that Heathrow gives employment to about 50,000 people, quite apart from the jobs created by the business that the airport generates.

Gatwick, of course, is already a hugely important hub and a hugely important employer. It is the fifth largest airport in Europe, competing with Charles de Gaulle and Schiphol in its own right. As my right hon. Friend said, it already handles more than 20 million passengers, which gives it a considerable position in the league.My right hon. Friend was generous enough to confirm, as most people would, that development of the existing facilities for perhaps up to 30 million passengers a year and beyond is entirely to be hoped for. It is natural that whenever we contemplate the hugely difficult proposition of where we put a new runway, we should run into the concerns that have been so ably expressed this afternoon. I shall not attempt to debate for a second the relative merits of the various sites that the working group on runway capacity for the south-east--RUCATSE--discussed ; that would not be appropriate. I merely say that when my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate mentions Marinair--the estuarial airport option--I conclude only that perhaps some of the enthusiasm for that option derives from the simple fact that it is in no one's back yard. Although I say no more on that, it does not make the discussion of issues such as this one any easier. It was right for the Government to follow up the advice from the Civil Aviation Authority on the need for runways and to set in hand the RUCATSE work. At that time, the Government acknowledged what was said in the 1985 White Paper, which my right hon. Friend quoted--that second runways should not be built at either Gatwick or Stansted. In its terms of reference, RUCATSE was explicitly asked to have regard to the environmental considerations which led to those views and they are, indeed, as my right hon. Friend stated.

I confirm straight away that I am, of course, aware of the legal agreement between the British Airports Authority and West Sussex county council to the effect that a second runway should not be built before 2019. The extent to which local people have set great store by that agreement has been brought forcefully to my attention by my right hon. Friend, not only today but in correspondence, and I acknowledge the importance of that agreement. In summary, RUCATSE produced forecasts of traffic and asked how those could be accommodated at the various sites.

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Mr. Kenneth Baker : My hon. Friend says that he acknowledges the importance of the agreement. Do I take it from that that the Government do not have it in mind to set aside the agreement, but that they will honour it and accept it ?

Mr. Norris : As my right hon. Friend knows, the agreement is between the local authority and the airport owners--between West Sussex county council and the BAA. As such, it is not an agreement to which the Government are specifically party and, therefore, it is not for me to contemplate its being set aside. The important thing--this is a specific reassurance that my right hon. Friend rightly wants--is that the Government fully recognise the importance of that perfectly legally binding agreement. My right hon. Friend, who is a distinguished former Secretary of State for the Environment, will understand that, in these circumstances, that is as far as I can go. RUCATSE was asked, first, to produce forecasts of traffic and, secondly, to see how they could be accommodated at the various sites by, for example, looking at possible layouts of runways and terminals. Thirdly, it was asked to assess the implications in respect of a variety of criteria. It is terribly important to stress that the alignments studied by RUCATSE were indicative only. Although some of the features of the analysis would be robust in terms of small or even large changes, others would not. The group attempted as far as possible to address key questions resulting from changes in assumptions through the use of a variety of sensitivity tests. The forecasts that RUCATSE produced were performed on an objective basis for all the sites that were studied. Naturally, forecasting of this sort is very much long-term stuff and very inexact. We all accept that. We have assumed reasonable economic growth and we have acknowledged that its translation into a rapid rate of air traffic growth--more than 6 per cent. on average in the 1970s and 1980s--is unlikely to continue. The judgment was made that there would be lower growth rates and a maturing of the most developed markets, but that there would eventually be a need for extra capacity.

My right hon. Friend was right about the increasing importance of regional airports. We recognise that, but we cannot put the matter to one side and convince ourselves that a combination of peripheral developments, however relevant, will provide a total solution to the need for this country to be competitive well into the 21st century. Air transport will be an important part of that and RUCATSE's work, unenviable in many ways, but supported--I acknowledge this--by many local environmental groups around each of the airports, has been invaluable.

I give my right hon. and hon. Friends an assurance that we are not dealing here with a specific application. If there were any development attempted to take forward the notion of Gatwick as the location for an additional runway, there would not only be the need for a full and detailed environmental impact assessment, but a great deal more of an extremely long and convoluted process in which I would expect my right hon. and hon. Friends to play a full part. Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Three o'clock.

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